Campus News

Graduates celebrate challenges and look to the future

The Class of 2024 faced a unique set of challenges, including starting their college journey at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. But their time at the University of Georgia has prepared these newest graduates to face whatever challenges come next.

Allison Schmitt, keynote speaker and four-time Olympian and 10-time Olympic medalist in swimming, shared how she’s overcome challenges and offered ways graduates can continue to challenge themselves during the undergraduate Commencement ceremony held May 10.

“I have challenged myself to be kind to myself, to lead by example, to embrace failure and to find my reason why. I’m here today to inspire to take those same challenges as you enter the next chapter of your life,” Schmitt said.

Schmitt, who received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from UGA in 2014, encouraged graduates to be kind to themselves by nurturing their minds and seeking support and being that same support when needed. She told them to lead by example, pointing out that one small gesture of kindness can change someone’s life.

“Be that person who invites the outsiders in,” Schmitt said. “Use your empathy and compassion to see beyond surface-level differences and truly connect with others.”

Schmitt also asked graduates to embrace failure as a friend, not a foe. Rather than seeing failure as a roadblock, they should see it as a steppingstone to what’s next.

Lastly, she urged graduates to find their own reason why and discover their purpose, reminding them that they can make a difference simply by leading with their hearts.

“The path that lies ahead may be unknown, and I am here to assure you that it’s within the unknown that some of the most beautiful and meaningful moments in life are found,” Schmitt said.

Trent Nesbit, who received a bachelor’s degree in economics and was selected as the undergraduate Commencement student speaker, shared how his fellow students helped make the last four years some of the best of his life and encouraged his classmates to make the years to come even better.

“I want to challenge each of us to build on our UGA experiences to make sure the best is always yet to come,” Nesbit said.

To do that, he said to be rich and invest in relationships, be lucky and bet on yourself, and be a Dawg by embodying connection, composure, resiliency and toughness.

“Through our many experiences together as Bulldogs, I believe these traits are now embedded in all of our DNA and will make all of us champions,” Nesbit said. “While most of us might not change the world, if we focus on our relationships, dream big, take risks, and live like champions, our world, and the worlds of those around us, will be forever changed.”

Fellow student Madelynn Alexander, who is pursuing a Bachelor of Music in music therapy, delivered a performance of “Georgia on My Mind” that brought flashlights in the air and the crowd to its feet.

At the graduate ceremonies held May 9, keynote speaker Jenna Jambeck offered an equation that helped her overcome challenges throughout her career—persistence plus patience equals perseverance.

Jambeck is now the Georgia Athletic Association Distinguished Professor in UGA’s College of Engineering and a 2022 MacArthur Fellow, but she told graduates that initially, fellow researchers didn’t care about her exploration into waste, trash and how plastic ends up in the ocean.

She persisted by finding and creating research projects that aligned with her passion while still continuing her academic research. After patiently biding her time, bigger opportunities opened up, like getting to take part in a research project with several other women crossing the ocean on a 72-foot sailboat to study plastic pollution. And because she persevered, she’s had the chance to co-lead research expeditions with National Geographic, for example.

“Things just like this— things you can’t even yet imagine, but you are ready for as you become alumni of the University of Georgia—can happen to you, too, with persistence and patience,” Jambeck said. “Take time to admire this tremendous milestone. Savor and acknowledge all that you have accomplished. Then, go forth, meet your calling and rise to the occasion. Because with persistence and patience, you will continue to persevere.”

A total of 8,318 students— 6,627 undergraduates and 1,691 graduate students—met requirements to walk in the university’s spring Commencement and have their degrees conferred by UGA President Jere W. Morehead. Of the graduate students, 281 were doctoral candidates, and 1,410 received their master’s or specialist degrees.

Additionally, Beth Buchanan posthumously received a Master of Science in psychology during the graduate ceremony. During the undergraduate ceremony, Morgan Delaney posthumously received a Bachelor of Arts in political science, and Birkley Heynen posthumously received a Bachelor of Arts in ecology.

For the undergraduates receiving their degrees, this Commencement was particularly poignant.

“Many of you sitting on the field tonight graduated from high school in the spring of 2020, when the entire world was first grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of you had a drive-through graduation ceremony or a ceremony conducted on Zoom as you and your family sat together on your sofa in your home,” Morehead said. “Those experiences make tonight’s undergraduate Commencement at the University of Georgia even more special. I hope that you feel a spectacular sense of achievement as we celebrate all that you have overcome in the past four years and all that awaits you in the bright future ahead.”

A total of 127 students were recognized as First Honor Graduates during the undergraduate exercises for maintaining a 4.0 cumulative GPA in all work completed at UGA, as well as all college-level transfer work done prior to or following enrollment at the university.

“You leave here this evening as the next generation of leaders of our state, nation and world,” Morehead said. “Whatever your future holds for you, your time here has prepared you for life and citizenship and gives special meaning to the words in the university’s charter that call the young people of this state ‘the rising hope of our land.’”